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Rural Leaders Worry About 'Devastating' Prison Closures

A corrections officer walks beyond the chain link gate at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, north of West Palm Beach. Inmates here and across the state said they followed the general election closely from behind bars. (Hannah Phillips/Fresh Take Florida)
A corrections officer walks beyond the chain link gate at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, north of West Palm Beach. Inmates here and across the state said they followed the general election closely from behind bars. (Hannah Phillips/Fresh Take Florida)

A plan to shutter up to four state prisons is alarming officials in Florida’s rural regions where correctional institutions have played an outsized role in providing jobs and supporting businesses for decades.

Senate President Wilton Simpson’s proposal to consolidate prisons and demolish four facilities drew bipartisan pushback when it was released recently as lawmakers began to piece together next year’s state budget.

Simpson, R-Trilby, has defended consolidation and closures, saying the plan is designed to resuscitate a prison system in crisis. The Department of Corrections for years has grappled with decaying infrastructure, an exceedingly high worker turnover rate and staffing vacancies so dire they now pose security threats to employees and inmates.

But local officials say the potential closures could have a devastating impact in rural counties, where prisons for generations have been woven into the fabric of the local culture.

“You could literally kill a community overnight by closing a prison, if it’s in the right location. You’re talking about generational changes that would affect our citizens,” Levy County Commissioner John Meeks, chairman of the state’s Small County Coalition, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview.

State prisons not only provide direct jobs for corrections workers but have a cascading impact on the surrounding communities, where employees buy groceries, eat at restaurants, attend schools and purchase homes.

Rural regions with correctional facilities also benefit from people who patronize local businesses as they make trips to visit loved ones or friends who are incarcerated.

“It’s almost like it’s its own form of tourism,” Meeks said.

And because inmates are included in counties’ census counts, the loss of prisoners could result in a significant decrease in state and federal revenue-sharing funds, which Meeks said would deal “another devastating blow” to rural areas.

The Senate included a requirement to shutter four state prisons by Dec. 31 --- and raze the buildings by 2024 --- in a proposed $2.75 billion budget for the Department of Corrections for the fiscal year that begins in July.

The Senate plan, which calls for the elimination of 6,000 prison beds, doesn’t target specific institutions. Instead, it would require the corrections agency to “develop a comprehensive facility consolidation plan to adjust prison capacity” based on the final state budget. Senate and House leaders will negotiate a final spending plan before the scheduled April 30 end of the legislative session.

Under the Senate approach, facilities would be considered for closure based on a variety of factors, such as the ages and “facility maintenance needs” of institutions; proximity to other prisons; the “local labor pool and availability of workforce for staffing the institution;” historical correctional officer vacancy rates at the prisons; and “the impact of closure on the local community’s economy.”

Meeks and other Small County Coalition leaders recently sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls emphasizing prisons’ role in rural areas.

“The closure of a prison in a small rural county would be a death sentence on the community, from the standpoint of creating essentially a ghost town,” Small County Coalition lobbyist Chris Doolin told the News Service. “It will cause people to leave. It will be devastating. That’s just the bottom line.”

Florida has more than 145 correctional facilities --- including prisons, annexes and work camps --- throughout the state, with a concentration in North Florida. Nearly 60 percent of the facilities are located in rural counties, according to a 2019 report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

The oldest prison still in operation, Union Correctional Institution located in Raiford, was built in 1913. Union and Bradford counties have nine facilities --- including five major institutions --- in a North Florida region known as the “iron triangle.”

The Legislature for decades fostered the corrections relationship with rural counties, where land was cheaper than in more populated areas, small county officials said.

“At the end of the day, long before I was around, there was almost an agreement made between the state of Florida and the rural communities, and I think a lot of our legislators today lost sight of that,” Meeks said, noting that “prisons aren’t popular things.”

Rural communities, which have limited economic bases beyond agriculture and nascent ecotourism industries in some areas, took on the correctional facilities because of their accompanying economic value, the county officials said.

DeSantis did not include prison consolidation and closures in a budget proposal he rolled out in January, and the House spending plan does not order shutdowns or demolition of correctional facilities.

“In the event the Department of Corrections elects to develop a comprehensive plan for the closure of two state operated correctional institutions, a written report of the plan must be submitted to the governor, president of the Senate, and speaker of the House of Representatives no later than Dec. 31, 2021,” the House proposal said.

Simpson defended the Senate plan by pointing to a decline in Florida’s inmate population, which has gradually dropped in recent years, hovering between 80,000 and 90,000 prisoners.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the number of inmates plummeted to about 74,000 for a variety of reasons.

As COVID-19 spread throughout the state last year, corrections officials for a period of time stopped accepting new inmates. Also, the prison population shrank because courts for months postponed criminal cases and jury trials amid the pandemic. A recent estimate showed a backlog of more than 1.1 million pending civil and criminal cases.

Critics of the Senate proposal say the state needs to plan for an influx of prisoners.

But Simpson said Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, who opposes shuttering prisons, could use the $160 million proposed savings --- $40 million per prison --- in the Senate plan to boost workers’ salaries, to address employee retention and recruitment issues and repair existing facilities.

The Senate plan “is a windfall opportunity, not a cut” for the corrections agency, Simpson told reporters recently, outlining what he said he told Inch about the proposal.

“We’re not looking to cut your budget. We’re looking to cut the amount of buildings you have to manage, because we don’t have enough people. Spread those people out, you will probably have ample people at that point and then we’ll give you the money to enhance and take care of the backlog of maintenance, upgrade the facilities so that they can operate on a very high level,” Simpson said.

Inch is pushing a DeSantis plan to reduce corrections officers’ work shifts from 12 to 8.5 hours per day, a schedule already in effect at some prisons. He said the shift-hour reduction --- which is being opposed in lawsuits filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents corrections officers --- will help recruit and retain workers.

Lawmakers must “provide the tools to recruit, train and retain staff and improve the correctional environment as outlined in our strategic plan and the governor’s budget recommendation,” Inch said in a prepared statement when asked about potential prison closures.

“Failure to address these priorities will greatly impact our ability to safely perform our core mission,” he said.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.